Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.”

A couple years ago, I went a Roth micro-binge and read The Counterlife and Everyman. I wasn’t extremely impressed, and, although I thought The Counterlife had some interesting ideas, I mostly wrote Roth off as an author who was clearly very talented, but maybe not for me. Fast forward a few years, and, married with a newborn daughter, I picked up American Pastoral to kill some time and  found myself completely sucked in.

The novel follows Seymour Levov, “The Swede”, a Jewish man who was once the godlike star of his high school. Handsome, athletic, friendly, the Swede was a hero to all he met, including Roth’s frequent stand-in, Zuckerman, who, at his request, agrees to write about the Swede’s father only days before the Swede dies of prostate cancer. At the meeting, Zuckerman is convinced that the Swede has led a charmed, unchallenging life, but finds that he is wrong when he learns (SPOILER) that Merry Levov, the Swede’s only child, bombed a post office as a teenager, and destroyed her family in the process.

I’m glad I waited until now to read American Pastoral, because it, like much of Roth’s later work, doesn’t really seem oriented toward the twenty-something crowd. It takes its time to get moving, spending the first third at a high school reunion after a short open paean to the Swede, and then following Zuckerman’s extrapolation of how the Swede’s life may have played out after high school. Interestingly, Roth never reveals what actually happened, never drops any hints as to the veracity of Zuckerman’s narrative, but it ultimately doesn’t matter: Zuckerman’s slow motion replay of the Swede’s life is a complete gut punch. At one point, I even did something I never do, skipping several pages detailing Merry’s debasement because it was too difficult to read in my situation. The entire second half of the novel is pretty heavy, as the Swede attempts to make sense of his daughter’s actions. His mental inventory of all his mistakes as a father bring him no closer to a sense of understanding or closure; indeed, Merry’s fate seems to have been set in motion before she was even born, pushing the nearly beatific Swede to the edge and just past.

Reading review of Pastoral is illuminating, because many readers took issue with the long digressions on glovemaking--the source of the Levov’s considerable wealth--or beauty pageants, but to me, these all served to underline the novel’s themes: no matter how hard you work or how good you are, your world is only one rash action from being turned to rubble. Or, as Roth puts it, “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach - that it makes no sense.”  It’s easy to read the novel another way as well, with the Swede representing the 50s ideal and Merry and her friends as the whirlwind 60s, but in my mind, what really sticks out is not the fine prose or the clever parallels, but the truly terrifying portrait of a family falling to pieces, and the good man who can do nothing about it, and maybe never could.


Christopher said...

Swede sounds like Rabbit Angstrom.

Also, my girlfriend just bought me a copy of Sabbath's Theater. I'm excited about it.

Brent Waggoner said...

Rabbit is way more debased. This is really good. Best Roth I've read. I'm trying to track down Sabbath myself.

Carlton Farmer said...

Is this good introductory Roth? I haven't read anything by him.

Brent Waggoner said...

I'd order what I've read American Pastoral > Everyman > The Counterlife (which is the opposite of the order I read them in). American Pastoral doesn't have any postmodern authorial conceits like The Counterlife, and it's way more substantial than Everyman.